Monday, 14 December 2015

Money! or remaking the world

The morning after the night before I woke with madness in my brain – literally, to the tune of One Step Beyond, but also metaphorically, mind thrumming furiously, thoughts flashing, certain that I couldn't do anything, anything, until I wrote the words and stoked the flames and raved (the wild declaiming kind, and the rapturous admiration kind) about Kneehigh's Dead Dog in a Suitcase. But I'm not paid to write for this blog, why would I be, so I swallowed the impulse and buckled down to the Real Work and now it's the day after the morning before and the fire has subsided to a gentle warming flicker and already I'm frustrated by how long this will take, sentences scraped together here and there, and always beneath the weight of Other Things Not Being Written and it's oh so stupid and

I love you when you’re with me
I hate you when you’re gone

and because in Carl Grose's script (brilliant, BRILLIANT) for Dead Dog that chorus melts into another, the word money repeated over and over, there is an intriguing ambiguity around whether “you” are a person or “you” are money and everything it carries with it, not just purchasing power but the self-confidence and sense of value people can/might/sometimes feel in proximity to money; an ambiguity that makes it possible to read “you” in other ways, as writing, for instance – and maybe that ambiguity isn't there at all, it's something I read into it because of an ongoing confusion and tension around money, and love, and work, and privilege, and maybe

maybe

maybe I should pause and breathe for a while.

I've been meaning to write about money for a long time, partly inspired by this terrific piece on being an artist by Harry Giles published in April, partly as a follow-up to a post I wrote after having my contract cancelled (which I call being fired) by the Guardian, in which I talked about barely earning £1500 in the first three months of that financial year, thereby freaking out two of my closest friends; I've wanted to redress the balance (the conscience one, more than the bank one) because my freelance salary is healthier now, but also because of intersecting conversations relating to heteronormative privilege and attitudes to theatre/criticism. But first I want to write about Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs), because it is a story about how money corrupts and damages, and promotes inequality, and a story that challenges us to think/do/be better, and a story that recognises the danger and difficulty and disappointment of any attempt at revolution but invigorates us to try anyway. It's a story that thrust a brick into my hand, then twinkled its eyes as it pointed to the policemen waiting for me to throw it.

It's an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera (which I haven't read or seen) with a strong sense of The Threepenny Opera (ditto), so this is an old story and Kneehigh know it. That's how they tell it, too: in fact, one of the things I most loved about this production is that the company could have made it in 1984 not 2014 and given it exactly the same rough-hewn aesthetic and even musical amalgam (composed by Charles Hazlewood – brilliant, BRILLIANT – with olde Englyshe aires gossamer amid punk, ska, soul, dub, skiffle, you name it), while speaking as directly to that specific political moment – Thatcher's second term, rampant privatisation, the beginning of the miner's strike – as the show today does to our own. That Cameron was not only voted back in but the Tories became the sole party leaders during the lifetime of Dead Dog has – I suspect – sharpened it further, adding voltage and volume to its rage at, to slightly paraphrase director Mike Shepherd's programme note, “the horrors of Syria, Gaza and Libya, bankers and bonuses, austerity measures, the increasing divide between 'haves' and 'have-nots', support for UKIP, and the endless corruption, injustices and short-term greed of the world”. But this is a show with an acute sense of history: with Punch and Judy as its characters' counterpoints and the melody of Greensleeves aching in the air, it insists absolutely on a recognition that corruption and the injustices of inequality have been integral to British society since the “modern” era began in the 16th century, so deeply ingrained that we might be psychologically incapable of creating genuine and lasting change.

That is a fucking depressing conclusion for the show to draw, and I left it feeling winded, as viscerally as if contract killer Macheath or criminal mastermind Mrs Peachum had actually punched me in the stomach. Until the final moments, though, I felt elevated, elated: not because corruption and injustice are of themselves entertaining, but because Kneehigh depict them with such raucous, scabrous, impudent wit, rumbustious playground energy and seat-of-the-pants invention. That's Kneehigh all over – actor-musicians moving fluidly between roles and instruments as they clamber over an industrial set with built-in slide and integral climbing frame – but there's something particularly canny about the way these constant fluctuations amplify this story's atmosphere of shiftiness. In a world this mutable, who or what can you trust? Only Punch: nasty, violent, misogynist Punch, who never changes and only ever says it as he sees it, the trickster who acts as Macheath's conscience and, in relation to the audience, occupies a position of omniscience so close to godlike that he's able to defeat the devil and even cheat death. If Punch is our lodestar, how royally fucked we are.

But I'm making it sound miserable and it so isn't: the phrase “it's a riot” might have been invented for this show, and the fact that it would dearly love to incite one just makes that feel more apposite. Taking his cues from the gaudy end-of-the-pier world of Punch and Judy, Shepherd fills the stage with larger-than-life characters: his Peachums are cockney upstarts, Arthur Daley figures (showing my age here) living the good life, Mr in his golfing jumper, knocking back banana daquiries while his pilchard factory pollutes the water system and his dodgy concrete mix starts to crack; and Mrs in clashing patterns, fringe sprayed vertical to match her overweening ambition, pushing her husband to greater heights of power; Lockit a kilt-sporting chief of police, all too willing to accept a bribe; his pregnant daughter Lucy, winningly reminiscent of Cry-Baby-era Ricki Lake; and Macheath himself, such a gorgeous turn by Dominic Marsh (why yes, I did fall instantly and painfully in love), a shorthand embodiment of every white British male pop subculture from teds to mods, rudeboys and punks. And every one of them is played to perfection (as are Punch and his cohorts by brilliant, BRILLIANT Sarah Wright, who has a touch of Tom Waits about her, and a lot of creeping, seductive menace), although really the show is stolen – appropriate, really, given the character's general villainy – by Rita Fatania's nimble, vivacious, hilarious Mrs P. I feel like something thrilling and long overdue is happening on UK stages at the moment, or maybe it's just that I happened to see it in two shows within three days: in Baddies at the Unicorn, and here, plus-sized actors are cast in starring roles without their body shape being a source of mirth, trauma or negative comment. Fatania is radiantly self-possessed, so in control of every muscle and enviably lithe that her body creates comedy without ever being the butt of the joke.

In the midst of this tumbling turbulent rabble, straight-laced Polly Peachum and austere Widow Goodman (a Grose/Shepherd invention, I think: wife of the murdered man who hoped to be mayor and reveal the Peachums' ill-doings) might come across as dour: but Polly celebrates her shotgun marriage to Macheath with a scintillating dance routine to music shot with Madness, while the violin-toting Widow is the show's goading soothsayer, challenging the ease with which people shrug their shoulders and carry on as though there were nothing we can do. On the eve of a vote in which Peachum is standing for mayor, she tells the workers in one of his factories:

I know he is relying on every one you to vote for him. To do this would be a disaster. It would sink us still further into his world of corruption. It may seem like you have no choice. But you do. We all deserve a choice!

And yes, that's about as stark as agit-prop gets – but in these dark days of nearly four million people voted UKIP, maybe stark is what we need. Tell the Widow that the world is shit and she will round upon you livid: “You can’t blame the world. We make the world. We decide for ourselves.” Every fucking minute we're alive. By the end it's clear that there's nothing lazily romantic about Grose and Shepherd's message: stand up for equality, liberty, justice, and you can expect to be pilloried; attempt a revolution and you are going to get hurt. But that's no reason not to try.

Part of how we make the world is how we establish, discuss and police class, and there's something fascinating – and, for me, piquantly personal – about the way the Grose/Shepherd Peachums have toiled to transcend their working-class roots, opening their own factories, just as my parents did (although I'm relieved that my parents ran theirs with a much better social conscience and significantly less criminal activity). When Mrs Peachum sees the millions she has stashed away in the safe threatened with destruction, she cries out:

But this is our life! Our legacy! Our strength! It is our past, our present and our bright shining future! It is everything! The only thing! It’s what we have fought for, dreamt of, wept over, wailed, slogged, sweated and spilled blood for!

and in that cry I heard a trace of sincerity impossible to mock. To people like my parents who haven't inherited it, money does feel like strength; to have created from nothing a financial legacy to pass on is an enormous achievement. It's a brilliant, BRILLIANT bit of text, wholly typical of the nuance of this show: brash on the surface, complex beneath.

And so here we are, the day after the day before, thinking about money. Another day in which the list of (paid and unpaid) work I need to get done is long, the time to do it short, and appreciation of its value tenebrous. Although that little word “value” is so multivalent that it will take some unpicking. Let's start where everyone else does, with basic economics: by the end of the financial year 2014-15, I earned just less than £10,000; in the first half of the financial year 2015-16, I earned about £6,250. So, I'm on the up, and sometimes proud of myself for holding my nerve, not pursuing the known – writing for newspapers/other established publications – but quivering within the unknown. However, that pride is a fragile thing set against the fact that, at the age of 40, I'm no longer financially independent or self-sufficient. The London living wage calculates at roughly £18,500 – and that is for an individual, not a mother with two young children. My salary would be untenable were I not married to a man with a full-time job. Say hello, heteronormative privilege. Because I work freelance we don't pay childcare – and here comes more family privilege, since we have two sets of parents and an aunt who contribute caring voluntarily. Whenever I catch myself worrying about money, which is often (my mother in no way brought me up to think financial dependency an appropriate condition for a grown woman), I remind myself that I have savings backed up from when I worked full-time in a prestigious job (although I no longer have a pension so the savings are very much the “bright shining future” that I try not to tap), and my parents also have savings (although they're already retired and steadily depleting that resource, so it's a security blanket in idea alone – but still a security many others don't have). I also know I should be grateful that my work life with children looks a lot more balanced than it did in the office era: my day lasts six hours, and although I work most evenings, a lot of those are spent at the theatre, or at gigs, which is hardly taxing. Speaking of which, by earning so little last year, I didn't pay taxes, so that's another “saving”.

I don't get paid much, but I get to do work that I love, that I choose for myself, that allows me to go out as much as I want, usually to things I choose for myself, often for free (and let's face it, the amount of free tickets I get – free tickets that theatre-makers often don't get – potentially save me a grand or more per year). Frame it like that, and I guess it's no wonder I feel like a fucking dilettante most of the time. It's a feeling that might be mollified if I had some other sense of value, but as someone whose work follows sheepishly in the footsteps of braver and more creative makers (and as a person who writes about theatre, I'm constantly being reminded by theatre-makers of that hierarchy), and resists placing itself within mainstream culture, and mostly happens within the cacophony of online, I don't see much in the way of professional value or experiential value; because I mostly work alone, and don't pay taxes, and haven't done any volunteer work in a while, I have no sense of communal or social value, no sense of contributing to anything other than my own selfish desire to write.

There is another value embedded here (word chosen deliberately): the ongoing love and support I'm given by the people who invite me to write about them or work with them. I wish I felt less insecure in the face of it, but that's another story. When people also offer me the opportunity to name my price, things really get absurd, because I have no idea how to value myself: or rather, I have a set of figures that I lean on, but they either misrepresent the time it takes me to get writing done, or give the impression that I think I should be paid more than the makers I'd be writing about. Earlier this year, another writer/blogger asked me whether money affects how I write, and as this has been my first year of being paid by Chris Goode & Company, I was making myself believe that the answer was no, it doesn't: but oh what a lie that was. Money makes me write faster, with somewhat less care, and certainly more conventionally. Money forces me to prioritise, but it also makes me attempt to fit the words within a financial timeframe of so many £ per hour: it's now five days since I started this post, and if I were being paid for it, I'd have aimed to have it finished within five hours max. Not being paid doesn't necessarily make the writing better – often it means it doesn't happen at all. But not being paid also gives me freedom, to fret and keep on fretting at something until its knots are all unravelled. Not that I'm doing that here. Here all I'm doing is failing to make this be anything other than yet another expression of “educated middle-class comfortable cis white woman feels guilty for her oh so entitled lifestyle”, getting tied up in my own confusion and contradictions in the process.

Money corrupts, and the more I fret about my freelance salary, the more I see how money corrupts me: affects how I write, affects how I think about what I can “afford”, makes me less generous. I'm an entirely typical product of a system that sets people apart by encouraging insecurity, self-loathing, iniquitous comparisons and stigma. And most of my time at the moment (a moment that is stretching into years) is spent thinking about which bit of my existence to blow apart first. But acts of destruction take a hell of a lot more strength and confidence than slouching on. And so I slouch on.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase looks destruction squarely in the face: Macheath puts a gun to his head, Lucy and Polly detonate the safe full of money, and a huge skeletal dog rises from their ashes, howling and swaying amid a shower of gold. “The tragic truth is there’s no revolution,” their spirits sing. “Just mankind wandering lost in the cold.” Is that Kneehigh advocating giving up? I don't think so: I think they're summoning us to grow up. To absolutely fucking go for it and make the changes we know we need. The morning after the night before, I read for the first time Hannah Nicklin's brilliant, BRILLIANT post for the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood blog, the one about what theatre could really learn from DIY punk, setting out a vision for a different kind of theatre industry (and, for that matter, society) redrawn along lines of community and compassion. It made me feel ashamed of myself for not doing more, surprised me into realising that I wholeheartedly support basic income (I've had questions, because I know a few people who have such sums of inherited money that I don't think they “deserve” it – but that, of course, isn't the point: the point is to eliminate such hierarchical thinking), and, along with Dead Dog itself, reminded me why I keep doing this, keep believing in rethinking what writing about theatre might be, keep staying up until 1am fretting away at blog posts, keep following others sheepishly rather than trying to make something of my own. Every word is – or should be – an attempt at a different way of doing, at imagining a world not-yet. A world in which it would make most sense not to be paid at all.

*

A postscript: the morning after Madness I woke up with this song:


which I include because it's one of the things that makes me think the internet is magic, but whenever I thought about my dogged relationship with theatre, it was replaced with this song:


which, I'm ready to admit, is pretty absurd.